To understand what drives one of South Africa’s most famous football players, you have to return to his roots. Siphiwe Tshabalala invites us back to a small house in Phiri, Soweto.
South African footballers have a reputation. Not a good one either. As SA celebs go, our footballing elite are about as famous as it gets, and this has given rise to some pretty big egos. The all-too familiar Premier League footballer’s Hierarchy of Needs has been enthusiastically embraced, and somewhere way below 1. Expensive Car, 2. Pop Star Girlfriend and 3. R5,000 Jeans is Remember Magazine Interview. Football players routinely arrive late – or not at all – to arranged photoshoots and interviews.
And here’s where Siphiwe Tshabalala is somewhat unusual. Given the current fame-versus-ego quotient, Shabba, as he’s known to the fans, should not be giving us the time of day. Yet here we are, early on a Sunday morning in Gauteng, talking and taking photographs. It’s also the day after the national football team’s disheartening draw with neighbours Botswana. Shabba is the team’s vice-captain and it’s the second 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier they’ve played – and drawn – in a week. The team had flown back into SA late the night before and later in the afternoon he has to report back to the Bafana Bafana camp. The few hours of his spare time have been given to us.
The house we’re standing next to is the reason for it all. Instead of taking us to his new home in an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg, he’s driven us through a maze of dwellings until we arrive outside a neat face-brick house in the Sowetan suburb of Phiri.
It belongs to his grandparents, and it’s where Shabba spent the first 19 years of his life. It’s the house that made him. “My grandparents, my parents, my sister and I all lived in this same house,” he says. “I am who I am because of my family. They taught me love and respect. They taught me how to look after myself, how to take my life seriously and how to put education before anything. It’s helped in me in my life as a professional footballer. I’m respectful and I’m disciplined. I’m dedicated to whatever I do – I always give 100 percent. Where I come from reflects the way I behave and interact with people.”
Shabba’s respect for his grandparents means we won’t be going inside to take photographs. It’s not something they are comfortable with. Besides, patrolling inside the fence along the concrete step is a grizzled dog that walks with the swagger of a guardian who’s successfully defended his territory for a number of years. “You don’t want to know how old that dog is,” explains Shabba. He belonged to my late uncle. His name is Bull.”
It doesn’t take too long for the word to spread and soon enough people are arriving to get a glimpse of the local hero. Across the dusty field opposite, some youngsters are huddled around a fire. It’s below zero on a typically dry and frigid Highveld morning, but they quickly leave their makeshift heater for the chance of a kick-about with the midfielder.
Read the full story in August's issue of The Red Bulletin.